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800 soldiers in dock at Bangladesh mutiny hearing

by Staff Writers
Dhaka (AFP) Jan 5, 2011
Some 800 shackled Bangladeshi soldiers crammed into a specially-built Dhaka court on Wednesday, accused of murder and other serious offences during a mutiny in which scores of officers were massacred.

During the 2009 uprising, 74 people -- including 57 senior army officers -- were killed at a military base in the city.

The handcuffed defendants, who include about a dozen civilians, shuffled silently into the huge courtroom after being transported from jail in a fleet of prison vans.

The temporary building has been erected on land normally used as a playground, with long benches installed to accommodate the 800 accused.

Judge Jahirul Haq will hear about the 30-hour mutiny in which Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) soldiers turned on their commanders, hacking them to death, torturing them and burning them alive before hiding their bodies in sewers.

The mutineers stole an estimated 2,500 weapons and broke into an annual meeting of top BDR officers before shooting them at point blank range. The BDR's head, Major General Shakil Ahmed, was among those killed.

They also stormed Ahmed's house on the base and killed his wife, domestic staff and guests, before setting fire to the building and stealing valuables including gold jewellery.

Armed police patrolled outside the court as dozens of relatives gathered to follow the proceedings. One elderly defendant with a colostomy bag was pushed into the court in a wheelchair.

Wednesday's pre-trial hearing came after hundreds of other BDR soldiers involved in the nationwide rebellion were earlier convicted on minor charges in special military-run courts.

As the mutiny in February 2009 spread to BDR bases across Bangladesh, it briefly threatened the new government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which had been elected only one month previously.

The cause of the violence is uncertain but resentment by soldiers against BDR senior officers -- who do not come from within the BDR -- is widely seen as the main factor.

The 800 accused face charges ranging from murder to conspiracy, looting military weapons and arson. Those accused of murder face the death penalty if convicted.

The trial is expected to last up to a year, though no start date for the prosecution case has been set.

"This case is unique, there has been nothing like it anywhere in the world," the judge said at start of the proceedings. "We can assure everyone that we will make sure of 100 percent justice."

The case is the country's single largest criminal probe ever, with police interviewing 9,500 BDR soldiers and civilians and detaining 2,307 suspects.

Investigators have cleared Bangladesh's main political parties of involvement in the mutiny, but more than 1,200 people are likely to be called to testify, including government ministers and senior army officers.

The BDR is responsible for patrolling the country's borders.

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